The island made its mark on everybody and everything.
~ from “covered in red dirt” in baby’s on fire
The simple quote above speaks volumes about Liz Prato’s new book, Baby’s On Fire (published by Press 53). Twelve short stories in less than 150 pages, rich in character and place; stories about women and men–siblings, lovers, parents–on the precipice of love, loss, forgiveness. Stories that strike at gut level and stick with you as characters face choices, look to each other for reprieve, study the sky. Take this from “a space you can fall into,” one of my favorites in the book:
Those stars are still there, looking down at her, saying, Come on. What are you waiting for?
A breeze makes the leaves shiver. the smell of dill from her aunt’s garden whispers by, tingling Shelby’s nose. She wishes Janie was awake. Janie could show Shelby how she does it. How she spreads her arms. If she puts them out in front or to her sides. Whether she jumps or flaps or soars. . . .
This month marks the seventh annual celebration of Short Story Month, and I’m thrilled to round off these last few days of May by introducing you to Liz Prato and her amazing work. Even better, you can win a copy of her book! Just drop your name in the comments–a simple way to win a wonderful collection of short stories.
Now, welcome Liz Prato!
CC: Your book is filled with characters in search of relief, and in some of your stories you leave readers with an ending that’s satisfying yet wanting. I mean that in a good way. Caroline in “cool dry ice” and Shelby in “a space you can fall into,” are both at the edge (one figuratively and the other literally), and I wonder where they will end up. In some ways, I know, but I still keep thinking on it–a perfect ending, I say, as it keeps readers tied to a piece long after the cover has been closed. When do you know you’ve reached the last line of a story you are writing?
LP: Well, that’s part of the fun of writing a short story – your ending doesn’t have to wrap it all up. It can leave some questions unanswered, some situations unsettled. But I feel that an ending should be a place where the character—and the reader—can, at least momentarily, rest. It’s not usually something I’m consciously aiming for, but often know when I get there. Like Shelby and Caroline standing on the edge. Like Jude and Spencer eating waffles. Like Sabrina resting against Kort while he sleeps. None of these characters’ problems are all solved/everything’s great/let’s ride off into the sunset. But they have taken a journey that brought them to that point where they can rest.
CC: Where do you find inspiration most often when it comes to writing short stories? Do you start with a word, an image, the seed of an idea?
LP: It’s often a situation. For example, I had a college friend whose house burned down right before he returned from a semester abroad his senior year of high school. His family told him about it in the car ride from the airport. I wondered what that would feel like, to return home only to find out your home had been destroyed, and started the story “Baby’s On Fire” with that question. Ultimately, that took me somewhere else entirely, like my original musings most often do, which is kind of great. I mean, how boring, if the path a story took me on was predictable?
There are also three stories in the collection that were inspired by longer works. The stories were either compressed (like in “When Cody Told Me He Loves Me on a Weird Winter Day”), or featured characters that had to be cut from a novel and were re-imagined in their own story arc (“Cool Dry Ice” and “I See You in the Bright Night”).
CC: In your interview with Steve Almond on The Rumpus, you talk about a few editors who said yes to your stories, even when they recognized you had more work to do on them, because they wanted to help you make a good story great. “That’s the most generous thing any editor can do,” you say. You are an editor as well an an author. How does one job inform the other, in your own work or in working with others?
LP: Several years ago, I read a review in the New York Times of Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson that said, “So it’s not a perfect book; but then, a perfect book would be perfectly safe, and I don’t have time for that.” That was a hinge moment for me: art shouldn’t be perfect. It can’t be perfect. But what it should be is moving and daring – whether it’s the story or the voice or the structure or the characters. If I’m moved by a piece of writing, if it takes chances, if it comes from the heart and soul, I’m way more likely to work with an author to even out the choppy parts. Because smoothing out a sentence or a plot bump is something an editor can do. Creating passion and voice isn’t.
When I was editing The Night, and the Rain, and the River, there was a submission by Scott Sparling with a voice that stopped me in my tracks. But it had a couple of narrative issues. I just knew, knew, knew that if I rejected this story and saw it published elsewhere later, I’d feel like I dropped the ball. So, I asked Scott if he’d like to work on it together, and it was an unbelievably fulfilling process. I’d point out places that weren’t working and ask questions about what he was going for, and Scott would respond thoughtfully and without defensiveness, and through the back and forth, he strengthened and tightened up the story without ever losing his original vision, or his voice. It’s still a magic experience for both of us.
CC: What are you reading these days?
LP: I’m super ADD when it comes to reading, so I’ve got a few things going right now: I’m reading the manuscript for Margaret Malone’s forthcoming short story collection, People Like You, that comes out in November from Atelier 26, and I just started Jenny Offill’s The Department of Speculation, and I’m re-reading Lolita, and from time-to-time I dip into The Touchtone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (how’s that for a mouthful of a title?). And I’m always making my way through the latest issue of Discover Magazine, because science makes my heart and my mind explode.
CC: What writing tip or mantra stays with you as your favorite?
LP: “What story would you tell to a dying person?” I might be paraphrasing, but I remember this as something Tom Spanbauer said. You would want it to be worth their limited time, right? It doesn’t matter if you make them cry, or laugh, or think of life in a new way—whatever—you want your writing to provoke genuine emotion. Surprise, even. That’s the best we can do—surprise each other, surprise ourselves, with the quality of mercy and grace.
Liz Prato’s short stories and essays have appeared in over two-dozen literary journals and magazines. She was the Guest Prose Editor for the Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher, and edited the fiction anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Her awards include the 2010 Minnetonka ReviewEditor’s Prize, 1st place in the 2005 Berkeley Fiction Review Sudden Fiction Contest, four Pushcart Prize nominations, and a Scholarship to the 2012 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She began teaching at the Attic Institute in in 2008, and has taught creative writing for several literary organizations throughout Oregon.
Liz lives with furry feline friends and her best friend/husband, who is a bookseller, musician, and writer. And, yes, she dreams of palm trees. Every day.
Baby’s On Fire is available for purchase from Press 53. You can also enter the giveaway to win a copy by leaving your name in the comments below. Deadline is midnight on Tuesday, June 2nd.